Excerpt from Coming from the Village to Take Photos, by Wang Yong
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Coming from the Village to Take Photos (村里来了照相的) is a book of interviews with two dozen photographers from twenty-three counties in Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Henan. These interviews, conducted between 2011 and 2014 by Wang Yong, provide insight into photographic practices in rural areas in central China.
Photography Businesses in Ancailou, Caoxian County, Shandong
In March 1956, fifteen private photography studios came together to form the County Trade Company. Outside of Ancailou, the only studio was in Qingguji. Graduation photographs were arranged by schools, which invited studios to send photographers.
In the 1970s, a few places with supply and marketing cooperatives opened photography studios. In the ’80s, private studios began to open in Ancailou. In 1980, there were four private photo studios; by 1982, the number had increased to forty-five. In 1985, there were 118 private studios operating across the county and they employed 277 people.
Caoxian County Records (Zhonghua shuju, 2000), p. 284.
ANCAILOU, CAOXIAN COUNTY, SHANDONG
Interview: 20 April 2012
Subject: LI XINCHANG
Wang Yong: Are you Li Xinchang?
Li Xinchang: Yes. I’m sixty-six this year. [Fig. 1]
Are you the first to paint backdrops in Ancailou Village?
Tell me about painting backdrops.
Okay. At the beginning I was making brush-and-ink paintings for the Caoxian County Art Company. At the time, the paintings were being exported. I was painting mainly landscapes for a wooden-furniture factory that later merged with the County Art Company.
Where were the paintings exported?
To America and Japan.
Were there other goods being exported?
Woven grass and decorative objects.
Caoxian exported quite a lot!
Yes. At that time, I met a teacher from Jiaodong who specialized in painting backdrops for photo studios. He approved of my work, thought I had something, so he introduced me to the Caoxian Art Company.
How did you get to know him?
During the Cultural Revolution, he was painting billboards and works that depicted the victory of the [Communist] Revolution. A sister who lived near Ancailou introduced me to the teacher from Jiaodong. He had come to Caoxian during the war to resist American aggression and give aid to Korea [1950–53]. His name was Li Lining. If he was alive today, he would be in his eighties or nineties.
Before you went to the County Art Company, what kind of works were you painting?
I did bird and flower paintings and also landscapes. At the time I did it just for fun, I hadn’t studied, it was a hobby. I would write out the quotations [of Chairman Mao] for people, I painted anything. After my sister introduced me to Li Lining, I joined the Caoxian Wooden Furniture Factory (that was before there was the Art Company) and was painting eggs. It was the 1960s when I moved to town. I was twenty-two. It wasn’t until 1989 that I got involved with painting backdrops.
So when you started at the Wooden Furniture Factory, were you a full-time worker?
No. I was learning the trade, so I was a casual. There was no market for painted eggs, so I switched over to brush-and-ink paintings. I painted to contract and got paid by the piece.
How long did you do that?
I painted eggs for three years and brush-and-ink paintings for close to ten. After that I changed careers and painted backdrops.
Were you also paid by the piece for these?
What kind of paintings did you create?
Mainly landscapes. Most were antique-looking things, copies of old paintings. I didn’t do much of my own work. We copied what foreigners liked: ancient Chinese architecture, landscape, subjects that related to Chinese culture.
Where were the paintings exported?
To many countries: Thailand, Burma, Singapore, other places in Southeast Asia.
If you worked hard, could you become a regular worker?
No. To become a salaried worker you needed contacts. I’m not good at that sort of thing. Nor did I really think about it. All I was concerned with was making good paintings. Ah!
Why did you change to painting photo-studio backdrops?
At the time, the business with export countries wasn’t too good; it was hard to sell things.
Why was that?
I think it was difficult to get international contracts. At the time it was the Trade Export Company that got the contracts. If there were no contracts, there was no work.
How many people were doing brush-and-ink paintings at that time?
More than ten. Some became regular employees, some moved on to other things, some went on to straw weaving. People did all sorts of things.
So you left and then started painting backdrops. How did you come to do that?
Back then I often went to Li Lining’s. He was painting backdrops.
Was he painting them to sell?
Did Li Lining want you to join him painting backdrops?
He wasn’t encouraging! That was his business. A newcomer learning to paint backdrops meant competition. That I understood!
Did you tell Li Lining you wanted to paint backdrops?
No, no! I often went to his place. I knew the backdrop-painting business was very good. I also knew that he didn’t want people joining his studio, so if I asked him whether I could join, I knew he didn’t want that, and that the reason was he was afraid people would learn his trade. So I thought, there’s no market for brush-and-ink painting, I have to earn a living, so I started painting backdrops at home. It was probably 1983 when I started.
How did you go about selling your paintings?
I rode around on my bicycle, to Yongcheng, villages south of Shangqiu, Xiayi, Huiting, traveling from village to village in that whole region, to each of the photography studios. To start with, I took about twenty paintings. I could sell each one for thirty kuai. They were all 2.5 x 2.5 meters. So that’s how I did it. I could make fifteen kuai on each painting and in one day I could sell two or three.
So you had a good income?
At the time I was so busy that I had to teach my younger brother and my nephew to paint. Before I went out, I sketched the outlines, taught them how to apply color. Painting studio backdrops is not as hard as doing brush-and-ink paintings. For brush-and-ink painting, if you hadn’t studied it for a couple of years, you wouldn’t dare to paint anything, but with this I could slowly teach them how to master it, and with two or three people we were right.
In the beginning, what kind of subjects did you choose to paint?
To start with, we painted those old-style arched doorways. They were easy to paint and there aren’t many designs. Also, photo studios had no painted backdrops at the time, so they wanted whatever you had. Business was good. [Fig. 2]
At the time, when you were delivering backdrops, were there any state-owned photography studios?
Yes, but not many. Back then I sold mostly to private studios.
In 1989, large photography studios were opening in Guangzhou, and that had an impact here: there was an opening up of [economic] policy and the government permitted private enterprise.
Yes, that’s right.
Did you have a sense of which studios liked which backdrops?
Those early archways were really popular. They said people liked standing in front of them to have their picture taken, so they were bought wherever we went. Later we changed subjects, switched to a half pavilion. And the third was to paint the whole pavilion. [Fig. 3, 4]
Why paint only half a pavilion?
Because on the other side of the pavilion was a covered walkway. In order to give a sense of the whole scene, we painted half a pavilion. In front were some railings, then some grass and flowers were added, then some trees, and the whole scene came to life.
So that’s how you paint a scene. What kind of backdrop was most popular?
As we sold them, we gathered information, asking what people liked, what they thought was attractive. We listened to people’s opinions and then made paintings based on their suggestions.
So over time you covered things. What about later on?
One by one the apprentices became proficient and could paint by themselves, so things gradually developed—because the market across the whole country is huge. At that time, most used this kind of backdrop. We couldn’t afford imported ones.
Imported ones were very expensive.
Of course. One imported one would go for many thousand kuai. Here, when large photography studios were just getting going, some used dreamscapes and hazy moonlight scenes.
In the beginning, were many used in town studios?
Yes. In each county town there were many photography studios, so there was demand!
A few days ago I was in Sihong, in Jiangsu Province, and they said the backdrops they were using were from Ancailou.
Back then it wasn’t just Jiangsu; you could go as far as Xinjiang and find our Ancailou backdrops. You could find them all over the country. When business was booming, we could sell half a ton of non-woven fabric in one day. Practically every household in the village was painting. Just think how much cloth can be used in one day. Ah! The cars and trucks were all transporting backdrops. [Figs, 6, 7]
They went out from the bus station at Caoxian?
You used handcarts to transport the cloths?
Yes. Later on we used buses for the large volume of goods.
So, spurred on by you, the whole village was painting?
Yes, everyone was painting. At first people painted by hand. Later we used spray guns, which were very effective. If no one in a household could paint, after a few days of instruction and a few tries anyone could master the technique. [Fig. 5]
I see. With spray guns you can apply color more evenly. After that you focused on selling?
Yes, we had someone whose job was to travel and make connections.
Who over here invented the spray-gun technique?
No, it wasn’t us. Others were already using the spray gun. Some villagers came to me with the suggestion and so we also started producing paintings with spray guns.
People in the village traveled and made contacts, so they picked up information. Whenever they discovered something challenging, they would come and talk to me and we would work things out. At first we used ordinary machine-made cloth but didn’t paint many. We gradually painted larger and larger backdrops and for a few years did well painting dreamscapes and hazy moonlight scenes. [Figs. 8, 9]
Were the dreamscapes all painted on white machine-made cloth?
Yes. After a few years of using white imported cloth, we began using broadcloth. With the regular white imported cloth, there was always a seam running down the middle and with broadcloth that wasn’t necessary. We discovered the wide cloth in Jiaozuo, Wubu County, in Henan.
Without a seam it looked better.
That’s right, yes. Photography studios asked for this.
What kinds of scenes did you paint then? Did you base your subjects on what the photographers in the studios wanted?
Yes. Someone from the village took on the job of liaison and gathering information, seeking out paintings we didn’t yet have, ones people really liked.
Ai! Back then people didn’t really care that much about whether something was good. What mattered was selling.
Ah! What you liked wasn’t always what the photographer in a studio liked. If the painting was good and the cloth had been carefully chosen, then the price would be high. Photography studios were mainly interested in keeping costs down; only after that did it matter if something looked good—as long as there was a scene, it was good and they could explain it to people. How many people who went to a studio to have their photo taken could we meet? The photographer talked things over with them and then was through, they agreed! [Figs. 10, 11]
Later, moonlight scenes became fashionable. That was in large studios, when there were large studios. As soon as large studios wanted something, then all of the smaller studios wanted the same thing and business flourished.
With everyone in the village painting, did you sometimes talk about these things with others? Did you get together and chat?
We didn’t really talk about things in a specific way. We painted whatever was in fashion. There were those who painted and those who specialized in selling, and whenever they saw that something was selling well, they would pass on that information and you would paint that. Each person had his own path, but the key was to keep improving and changing. It was those who were smart, though, with good cultural knowledge, who painted well and whose work sold well and for high prices.
Are there still people in the village who are painting by hand?
Not at the moment. Everyone is using a spray gun. When you enter the village, you can hear the sound of machines and they’re machines imported from Japan. My son has many of them. The designs created using the machine are both realistic and detailed, things that are more difficult to achieve by hand.
I see that in the village you also make props.
Right. That was also something we developed, based on the needs of photography studios. In any case, those who in the past were painting backdrops by hand now don’t have any downtime, carpenters are required, and when the things are made they need to be spray-painted. There’s work for everyone. The props were also seen on travels and then started up here. It’s also a case of building on the solid foundation in the village of painted backdrops and creating a new line.
That’s right. Whatever is fashionable in Guangzhou comes from overseas, and others follow and study and make.
Yes. These days the village is trading mainly in props and backdrops. And in terms of establishing photography studios, practically every city—Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Zhengzhou, Ji’nan, and so on—these places and markets all have studios run by people from this village.
I see! So do villagers working in Beijing regularly get together?
Yes. They often meet for a drink!
What’s business like now?
It’s not great. Originally someone else was looking after the photography studio here in the village, but I’ve bought it back. It used to be owned and run by three families but now it’s just me. Of the other two, one went to Changsha and the other to Wuhan, each to open a studio.
Are your two eldest sons also involved in the business?
My eldest son is in Beijing making backdrops. He uses this machine. My second son is in Suzhou, also involved in the trade.
Mr. Li, as Ancailou backdrops relate to rural photography studios, what’s the future of the Ancailou backdrop business?
Photography studios will never disappear. The population is only getting larger, so the photography business will only get better. Photo studios these days place greater emphasis on props, however, so there will be an impact on our business.
In relation to actual scenic photography, each place has its own situation. Today there’s still a significant demand for machine-painted backdrops. For those studios that use props, there is, of course, an impact on our production of painted backdrops.
How do you feel after having painted backdrops your entire life? Is there anything you find difficult to forget?
I’ve done this work to earn a living, to support a family, but it has also enriched my cultural life and of course I love the profession.
Yes. You’ve seen the transformation of the industry over decades: the painting of backdrops by hand, the use of spray guns, and now props. Can you summarize your experience?
Ai! Even though I haven’t painted anything famous, the fact that we’ve created incomes for people from Ancailou, that we’ve delivered some profits to people, is, I feel, very worthwhile.
In the process of delivering backdrops, I’ve had to cope with many different situations: making deliveries in heavy snow, walking along slippery roads, falling over a number of times, traveling along mountain roads—going downhill is especially hard going. On many occasions the vehicle overturned with me and I was injured. When members of my family heard what happened, they’d be very worried and prevented me from doing my work. But then I thought, This is an enterprise that’s just getting going, the villagers have just come on board, business isn’t bad, so I can’t give up because of these difficulties. In order to build up the business, make it big so it can bring wealth to the entire village, I must continue, and I must make it big and make it good.
After a few decades of hard work to set things up, the entire village has developed to its present situation. I’ve witnessed that every family in the village is prosperous, and that we’ve taken the business across the country—this is the greatest cause for happiness. I’m now helping my youngest son to do work online in the hope that our products can be sold on the Web to all parts of China and overseas. I believe that if we do this with sincerity and confidence, the business can be big and strong.
May I add a comment? You’ve also brought happiness to people. This, too, is a value [of your business]. Why do I say that? Because so many places use your backdrops. Isn’t that right?
Ah. Yes. I believe that via the Web we can promote the products of the village. This is my youngest son’s idea. We’ll work hard to achieve that!
[Addressing Li Xinchang’s youngest son, Li Xun] You must know that your father was the first person in your village to paint photography-studio backdrops and is someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the village. Today, with the development of the Internet, you must be the first person from your village to sell goods over the Internet. Is that right, Li Xun?
Your oldest brother and your second-oldest brother are both involved with the original enterprise, but you studied at university in Beijing, and if you compare yourself to them, you must have gained more knowledge and developed greater foresight. You must have faith that if you continue to study, you have the ability to succeed.
I would advise you to participate in some classes relating to big photography studios and to get a handle on what it is that people are after and to understand the needs of people in relation to photography, so you can be different from others, be one step ahead of them. People’s requirements alter along with the changes occurring in society, and that’s especially the case for people in the countryside. Now many rural people are working in cities. They see a lot, so of course their aesthetic sensibility changes. Through study and practice, you must satisfy their demands. Now it’s fashionable to talk about the China Dream. I hope your Backdrop Painting Dream will be the biggest in China.
Mr. Li, do you want to add anything?
After painting backdrops for all these years, I’ve developed an emotional attachment to them. The final thing I’d like to say is this: Painted backdrops are like the winds blowing across this great land of China; like rain moistening this fertile soil; like flowers embellishing this era; like leaves setting off a brilliant shimmer. They hold a never-ending fascination and through the photographer’s lens transport you into a dreamlike realm, ensuring that hopes are realized, that beautiful dreams come true. [Fig. 12]
Wang Yong, Coming from the Village to Take Photos (Beijing: Zhongguo sheying chubanshe, 2014), 351–63.
Wang Yong was born in a village in Huaibei, Anhui, in 1975 and is a member of the China Photographers Association. He lives and works in Yongcheng, Henan.
Claire Roberts is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne and Associate Professor of Art History. Her most recent book is Photography and China (2013).